The Forefeast of Theophany, the Prophet Malachi, and the “Angel” Forerunner John

A Homily from St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Sunday Jan. 3, 7530 (civil calendar Sun. Jan. 16, 2022).

The Feast of the Theophany will be upon us soon this week. Coming not long after Christmas, it in effect bookends the Nativity Season, and rightly so. The Orthodox Church commemorates Theophany as the time when St. John the Forerunner baptized his cousin, our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, in the River Jordan. In doing so, as the Tropar or hymn for the Feast tells us, the worship of the Holy Trinity was made manifest for all time. God Who had become Flesh, part of Creation, hallowed Creation through his baptism in the river and the revelation of Him as a Person in the One Holy and Consubstantial Trinity, the Way and Truth and Life for us. This was the baptism of all Creation in Christ, to be fulfilled in the baptism that we experience in the Orthodox Church. Let us brothers and sisters renew or foretaste that baptism this week in the Theophany of Christ.

Theophany  iterally means a “revelation of God” in Greek (Θεοφάνεια; the Russian is Богоявление). According to the tradition of the Orthodox Church, Jesus Christ already had revealed Himself many times through theophanies in the Old Testament, such as to Moses on Mount Sinai, and to Abraham as the lead visitor at the Oak of Mamre. However, this Theophany early in Christ’s public career is in effect known as the Theophany Feast, because it came following and during His Incarnation on earth, and involved such a full revelation and also blessing for all of us creatures and the earth in His baptism in the waters that are source of earthly life and type of the workings of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel reading today from the Book of Mark includes a passage from the Old Testament Prophet Malachi, who is also commemorated today: “Behold I send My Messenger before Thy face, Who will prepare Thy way before Thee.” Malachi is sometimes called the last of the Old Testament-era prophets. His own name means messenger or angel, which the Forerunner is also called, and St. John the Baptist is often depicted as an angel in icons. Yet the Forerunner John, to whom Malachi’s prophecy points, is most properly called the final Old Testament prophet, as well as symbolically angel or messenger.

Holy Forerunner John
Holy Prophet Malachi

Just as the Prophets prepared the way for Christ, as if preparing for the feast of His coming, so too did John the Baptist by his calls for repentance and His ministry of baptism. John’s baptizing work was not that baptism of Christ that we share as members of Christ’s Body in the Orthodox Church toward our salvation. But John’s baptizing was a preparation. John served our Lord and our Lord arose in the waters in the revelation of His divinity and that of the Trinity, blessing all Creation. In some Orthodox icons, little creatures riding fish at the bottom personify the Jordan River and the Sea, fleeing from such a great marvelous presence in the water. The Jordan symbolized the crossing into Israel in Old Testament times, the border of Israel and the world, for the Church as the new Israel would bring the Gospel to the world at large. It also symbolizes the river of Paradise in Genesis at the beginning of Holy Scripture and the river of the New Jerusalem in the final book of the Apocalypse.

The blessed holy water from rivers and lakes around the world and in our region become at this time of year at Theophany services the holy water that blesses our homes and that we can drink throughout the year for the healing of soul and body. The axe depicted by a tree on the side of many icons of Theophany indicates John’s call for repentance and for a change of life in preparation for such blessing, cutting down the tree that bears not fruit, and sin at the root, from the time of Adam and Eve at the old Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that would become the Tree of Life in the Cross.

Another connection between Malachi and John the Baptist is their defense of traditional marriage. Malachi in his prophetic writing condemns divorce and relates it to unfaithfulness to God. The Forerunner lost his life by standing for the biblical standard of marriage. Let us remember that marriage is a living iconography of God’s love for His Church. In a sense we all as a community are married to Him whether we are humanly married, single, or monastic. We are washed clean in the baptism of Christ and other mysteries of His Body the Church, while needing to engage in repentance and ascetic struggle daily by God’s grace.

The Holy prophet Malachi in the ending of his book prophesies, “to you who fear My [the Lord’s] name the Sun of Righeousness shall arise with healing in His wings, and you shall go forth leaping as little calves released from their bonds… Behold I will send you Elijah before the great and glorious day of the Lord. And he will turn the heart of the father to his son, and a man’s heart to his neighbor, lest I come and strike the earth completely.”

John the Baptist was seen as partly prefigured by the earlier Holy Prophet Elijah who called sinning Israel to repentance. Elijah, who had been taken up into heaven by the Lord, did return at the Transfiguration of Christ later in the Gospel accounts. Also, we are told by Church tradition Elijah will return with Enoch as a witness against Anti-Christ before the Second Coming of Christ. John the Baptist, like Elijah the humble yet courageous dweller in the wilderness, lived a simple life while calling multitudes to repentance and pointing to the divinity of Jesus Christ. He would end up preaching the Gospel to the righteous of the Old Testament in Hades, among whom undoubtedly was Malachi, to prepare the way for Jesus Christ’s coming to Hades.

Let us this week brothers and sisters also “gather at the river,” as the old hymn written by a former resident of Lewisburg famously puts it. This week let us humbly and unworthily with God’s grace be right there with the Forerunner and behold in our hearts He Whom the Prophet Malachi foretold, the Sun of Righteousness arising with healing in His wings. May the message and role of the Forerunner John at Theophany indeed warm our hearts and lighten them with joy as Malachi foretells, filling our hearts with love for our family members and neighbors, as we experience our own baptism in Christ anew this Theophany season.

In anticipation, let us cry: Christ is Baptized! In the Jordan!

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